Campus Life

Craving for caving: Meet the MIT Caving Club

Exploring the world below your feet

Tired of the daily grind, the salt-crusted asphalt, the grey sky above? Feel the itch to explore places unknown? Or perhaps you’ve conquered the gym’s rock wall and are looking for another challenge? A cave could be the place for you. See waterfalls, exotic wildlife, and nature’s rock sculptures, all underneath your very feet.

You’re going to need some help to get there, though. That’s where the MIT Caving Club comes in, exploring subterranean grottos since 1980. The tight-knit community of about ten undergraduates goes on spelunking trips throughout the year, in locales from Massachusetts to Canada.

According to club member Linda X. Chen ’12, “If you think about what it’s like to be underground, you imagine dark and cramped, but there are lakes you can swim around in, super clean because no one has touched them. Sometimes tunnels are very narrow so you have to crawl, but then they open up and there are crystals on the wall.”

Underground, the cavers find albino lobsters, flooded tunnels, and even snow sleds to slide on the pristine mud inside. The mud can also be used to make sculptures, left behind in the cave for others. The MIT club has recognized sculptures created by past Beaver visitors.

Once you’ve packed your food, water, helmet, gloves, kneepads, climbing gear, wet suit, three sources of light, emergency blanket, change of clothes, and a plastic bag, you’re ready to go. However, all the equipment in the world can’t shield you from the hazards Nature guards her treasures with. It’s not easy venturing into the bowels of the earth. Dangers abound, making caution a caver’s best piece of equipment.

If you’re small, you have an advantage in being able to squeeze through tight passages; you’ll fall into cracks more easily, though. And despite their name, cave-ins are relatively rare, but slippery rocks, hypothermia, surprise floods, and simply getting lost could put a real damper on your exploration party. That’s why the cavers travel in groups of about five, and always pay attention to safety. Fortunately, the MIT club has never had a serious injury.

For those who revel in the rush of discovery, delving into the deep is a good exercise for their inquisitive tendencies. However, “a lot of beginners try it once and never come back” because of the soaking wet conditions and constant risk of hypothermia, said Chen. It’s imperative that you wear non-cotton clothes, even underwear, unless you want to literally freeze your butt off.

Spelunking requires a high tolerance of discomfort, considering the crawling through a twisty maze of tunnels, the diving through flooded tunnels, and the rappelling into the dark, not knowing when your feet will hit the ground. Incidental unpleasantries include having to push your way through the decaying bodies of animals that wash into caves.

“Most people have never smelled a dead mammal in an enclosed space,” Chen said. “If you are a beginner, don’t let all this talk of freezing cold water, hypothermia, and damp dark small spaces scare you. I’m a 100 pound, five foot two inch female who can barely do two pushups before collapsing on the floor — if I can go caving, anyone can.”

Caving is definitely an activity that can’t be experienced vicariously. The descriptions in newsletters don’t do the caves justice, and the enthusiasm of the speakers at Boston Grotto (the Boston caving club) isn’t quite so contagious when all you have is their account of the wonders they saw. Photography isn’t always an option either. In the wet caves of the New England area, the moisture will ruin cameras, and there are the obvious lighting problems. The only way to experience the grandeur of the deep is to see it for yourself.

The cavers are the few, the strong, and the brave, willing to face unknown risks to see what few others have seen before. If you can persevere beyond the challenges, a wondrous new world awaits. Just don’t forget to wear your helmet.

For more information, blanche yourself onto the list. This is the first of a series of profiles about clubs at MIT.